WEB EXCLUSIVE: Cliff Robertson

Photo by Bill Bernstein
Monday, April 12, 2010 - 4:00am

Cliff Robertson told us that he began acting as a way to avoid work. "I learned in third grade that if you volunteer for that stupid class play where they extol the virtues of vegetables and somebody plays the carrot and somebody else plays the bad food, you won't have to stay after school and clean the erasers," he said. "It was a way to avoid stuff you didn't want to do. I found it of use later in prep school and military school. I'd volunteer for the play and I wouldn't have to walk around the quad with a 40-pound pack and a rifle. I was lazy."

Well, maybe. But Robertson also talked to us about his work ethic--and it offers a better explanation for a career that has encompassed roughly a hundred films, including PT-109 (John F. Kennedy suggested him for the lead), Star 80 (he played Hugh Hefner), Three Days of the Condor (with Robert Redford) and Charley (which won him a 1968 Oscar). He has also tackled TV roles dating back to the 1950s, when he starred in Playhouse 90's Days of Wine and Roses and a pair of classic Twilight Zones.

Robertson's work ethic also explains why, at 86, he remains busier than many people half his age. He's still acting--most recently in an adaptation of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet and a trio of Spider-Man movies--and is also involved with numerous charities and finishing an autobiography.

He devotes many of his remaining hours to aviation, a field he once compared to "a beautiful woman you can't forget." He writes a column called "Cliffhangar" for Airport Journals, a monthly trade publication; and he spends considerable time flying his stable of vintage aircraft. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

Where did you get your work ethic? Not from your father, I understand.

Well, he was a bright, well-educated man who had every opportunity, but he chose to just spend the money his ancestors had earned. So I was determined in my youth to never be one of those playboys. I remember lying about my age when I was 10. I said I was 11 so I could sell magazines and earn my own money.

The work ethic came from a desire to not be like your dad?

Yeah. I was embarrassed when other kids would talk about their fathers. They'd say he's a lawyer or doctor or whatever. I couldn't say, "My father is a playboy."

By now, you've accomplished more than most people. What keeps you working hard at your age?

Playing doesn't fit my Calvinist work ethic. Joy comes from work. If you're working, you're not being wasteful. God gave you tools and you should utilize those tools.

How did acting become your profession?

I wasn't thinking of it in terms of a career. I was thinking of journalism because it was the one thing that came fairly readily. There was a paper I worked for in New York and they said I had a certain talent and should start writing for the theater. So after World War II, I came back to New York. Next thing I knew, I got acting jobs off-off Broadway. And I seemed to do all right, because I got paid about $5 a week. After a while, it was evident that I could eke out some kind of a living.

You've said you've never been satisfied with any of your films.

Absolutely true. I'm less dissatisfied with some than others, depending on how much time we had or with whom we were working or what words we were wrestling with. One I was least dissatisfied with was a movie I wrote, directed and starred in called J.W. Coop. We had very little money and certain other disadvantages, but I feel reasonably confident that we did the best we could under the circumstances. But it's those damnable circumstances...

You were involved in a well-known whistle-blowing incident in the 70s.

The president of Columbia Pictures was forging signatures on checks, including mine. I took it to the FBI and the rest is history. I [was blacklisted as a troublemaker and] didn't work for a couple of years.

That must have been tough.

Yeah, but I knew I did the right thing and I could sleep at night.

When did you get your pilot's license?

I got it first in England. I was doing a movie there. I wanted to learn in a biplane. I knew they were kind of a challenge in a crosswind and it seemed romantic.

I ended up buying a de Havilland Tiger Moth. Then when I got it back to the States, I needed parts, so I managed to buy a second one. But when it arrived, it was in better shape than the one I was trying to buy parts for. And then I bought a third one.

I sold them all subsequently, but I did win one battle first: They were licensed only as experimental, which limited what you could do in them. So I started my Kafkaesque battle against the bureaucracy. It took me five years going to Washington. Finally we won and people started bringing Tiger Moths into America.  

What are you flying now?

Everything I can. I don't own one of those expensive jets, though I'm flirting with the idea. I have a World War II Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a twin-engine Baron, which has all the bells and whistles. I'm prepared to trade or sell it for a single-engine [turboprop].

You were in love with flying at a young age, weren't you?

I was in the backyard at age five looking at a little monoplane pirouetting in the sky. My uncle and another man were wagging their heads and saying, "You'll never get me up in one of those." And while they were philosophizing, the airplane curved and swayed safely back toward San Diego. So then we got into the waiting Ford at the curb and it wouldn't start. And even in my little five-year-old mind, I thought, "What's wrong with this picture?"

From then on, I had a connection with aviation. When I was 13 or 14 at an airport in San Diego, the chief pilot would say, "Cliff, go get your seat cushion" because I was short for my age. And we'd take off and I'd get to fly for 15 minutes. I thought I was the luckiest kid on the block.

Now, I was out recently with my airplane, washing it, and a kid came up on his bicycle and asked me a few questions. I finally said, "You want to help me wash the airplane and I'll take you up?" He said, "Great--how much will you pay me?" I said, "Oh, forget it." We've lost some of the work ethic today.

Fast Facts

Name: Cliff Robertson

Occupation: Actor

Birthdate: Sept. 9, 1923

Home: Water Mill, N.Y. (in the Hamptons)

Education: Antioch College

Aircraft: Messerschmitt Bf 109, Beechcraft Baron, sv4Stampe, Grob Twin Astir

Hobbies: Aviation, tennis, skiing

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